Coronavirus has had plenty of curious effects on mainstream culture. "Jedward emerge as the internet's woke champions" perhaps did not feature on many of our 2020 bingo cards. So too have we seen the establishment of an unlikely genre of public persona: the celebrity scientist. And the wholesale digitisation of the art, music and theatre world will no doubt have ripple effects on our cultural landscape far into the future.
And now it’s Van Morrison’s turn in the spotlight – as he stepped into the maelstrom of coronavirus culture wars and became the enemy of the hour.
The 75-year-old Northern Irish musical legend will release three lockdown protest songs over the coming weeks. To give you a flavour of what’s to come, on As I Walked Out Morrison sings: “On the government website from the 21st March 2020/It said Covid-19 was no longer high risk/Then two days later Boris put us under lockdown . . . ” (Rock and roll, baby).
As we are fast learning, good public messaging is a critical component to managing a society as it navigates the grips of a pandemic
And so we find ourselves back in the clutches of coronavirus-induced outrage – firing from all cylinders, everyone ready to denounce the latest villain.
Where were the warning signs? Was it Morrison’s innate stubbornness; his well-documented penchant for misanthropy; the seemingly irresistible allure of simply being a difficult person? Who among us could have predicted this?
But the upset is understandable – to an extent. No one wants to see their musical hero embark down the murky path of conspiracy; and it is frustrating to see public figures indulging anti-scientific and anti-social rhetoric.Though it is hard to avoid the conclusion that priggish pearl-clutching at a known contrarian being contrary is perhaps a waste of our dwindling energy reserves. To pose a salient question: does any of this actually matter?
The accusations that these songs could undermine social cohesion required to mitigate the spread of a virus is a hollow one. This gambit won’t change hearts and minds: those declaring the lyrics to be a great victory probably had their outlook on the lockdown pretty set in the first place. And those aghast at Morrison’s apparently brazen disavowal of social responsibility are hardly going to be convinced by him in the other direction.
In fact, as we face a looming second wave of the virus we have been told time and time again that this is in no small part thanks to youth non-compliance with restrictions. If we assume that is true, then we have to question whether Morrison has any impact at all. Teenagers attending illicit raves and house parties are – and stop me if you’ve heard this one before – not inspired to do so by their dad and uncle’s great rock icon.
So, questions over the impropriety of Morrison’s anti-lockdown songs (and there are many) are a waste of breath. Instead we should think about where the real battleground is as we try to influence behaviour to combat a second wave. And that is not in the crowds of Morrison’s socially distanced concert tour.
As we are fast learning, good public messaging is a critical component to managing a society as it navigates the grips of a pandemic. We have seen what happens when that messaging fails: flip-flopping on the question of masks, and a constant drip-feed of new restrictions and regulations has seen confusion run abound in the UK and Ireland.
Concerns about Morrison are misplaced. But the incident can serve as a timely reminder of how to communicate with an entire population with diverse interests and habits
But what is required is not just simple and consistent messaging – but also working out how to penetrate communities and swathes of the population who are harder to reach. Young people tend to engage far less with traditional media outlets – newspapers, TV, radio – than older generations. And if there is a serious concern about this cohort in society failing to comply with coronavirus restrictions, we need to ask how to communicate with them on their level.
Understanding this, Taoiseach Micheál Martin floated a good idea over the weekend – with an in passing suggestion that teenage social media influencers ought to be drafted into the bid to reach out to young people. There are no plans in motion for this yet but following in the footsteps of the UK government – who paid influencers to promote the NHS test and trace system – could reap dividends for a Government frustrated with youth non-compliance.
Because not all celebrities are created equal. And where the TikTok and Instagram stars may very well lack the linguistic dexterity and so-called transcendental live performance style of Van Morrison, Morrison himself (and no doubt to his pleasure) lacks the ability to influence youth culture in any meaningful way.
It seems that paying these so-called influencers – many with millions of young fans – to lobby their followers on the importance of social responsibility amid a pandemic is a credible alternative to endless press conferences and state-of-the-nation addresses.
Martin, then, is definitely on to something. They say delegation is a facet of great leadership. So when you are as staid as Martin, and so not down with the kids (so to speak) it makes endless sense to whip up a cohort of teenage influencers to do your PR for you.
Concerns about Morrison are misplaced. But the incident can serve as a timely reminder of how to communicate with an entire population with diverse interests and habits. To make a start: Martin’s off-the-cuff idea is not such a bad one.